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Lewis Academy founder fights accusations

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Patricia Lewis said she is tired of reading "frivolous" and "ridiculous" claims about her school in the newspaper.

As the Clayton County School System ponders what to do with the Lewis Academy of Excellence, its founder defended her school on Wednesday to members of the Board of Education's Student Achievement and Support Services committee. In all, six members of the board, including two of the committee's three members, were at the meeting. Only Yolanda Everett, Lois Baines-Hunter and Norreese Haynes were absent.

Lewis and the academy's assistant chief executive officer, Dionne Thompson, told the board the school is in the process of closing on a contract to purchase a facility at Woodward Academy in Riverdale for $3 million. They also told the board the academy is still owed more than $300,000 in tax dollars by the school system.

Officials from Lewis Academy and the school system have fought over finances, teacher certification, record-keeping and background checks since the school opened, but a move toward revoking the school's charter began last month after Lewis failed to provide a lease for a new facility by June 1.

The academy's lease with its old home, Riverdale First United Methodist Church, expired on that day, and church leaders decided to not renew it. Last summer, the church filed a civil suit against academy leaders in Clayton County Magistrate Court, alleging unpaid rent and utility bills totaling $39,000. The two sides reached an agreement to let the school remain at the church for another year while it paid its bills.

According to Lewis and Thompson, the academy is in the process of closing the deal to purchase a new facility, which should be completed on July 27. They said the school will move in the next day.

They have already provided the school system with a letter from Capital City Bank, which said it will pay 80 percent of the purchase price, but told board members they were also in the process of lining up a loan with another bank that would cover 95 percent of the cost. That would mean the loan from Capital City Bank would not be needed by the academy.

"It will take us one day to open [school] because our staff is ready to move in," Thompson told the committee.

Board members declined to comment based on advice from their attorney. The board will continue to weigh its options, and is waiting to hear more information about the academy's new home before making a decision on the school's future.

"Instead of standing here and defending ourselves, we should be commended for the accomplishments we've had," Lewis told the committee. While Lewis and the school system have fought several battles over the academy's operations over the last two years, the school has managed to make Adequate Yearly Progress each year of its existence.

Lewis questioned why the academy's Full-Time Equivalency (FTE) was listed at 254 students in October 2005, but the school was being paid for 245 students. Lewis said she has tried to meet with school system and state department of education officials, but a June 28 meeting was canceled at the last minute, because Theresa McDugald, the system's chief financial officer, had to leave town, abruptly, to take care of a family emergency.

"If we don't get these things taken care of, we're saying the children of Lewis Academy of Excellence don't matter," Lewis said. She also asked board members how to improve the lines of communication between the academy and the board. "I should not have to learn what the school system's concerns are by reading about them in the newspaper," she said.

The first classes at the academy were held in August 2005. There were 247 kindergarten through fifth-grade students enrolled at Lewis Academy during the 2006-07 school year.